We are a Covenant People
The movement of people from place to place in this world does not always leave us with the opportunity to continue worshiping with a community of faith like the one we may have grown up with. We may also have not been connected to a community of faith in our younger years and so this may be the only community experience we know. We may have come to this place because we knew someone, or we may have come out of a need in our life to find God and express what we felt happening in our life. We may have come to this community of faith on the recommendation of someone, or we may have come because our family was or is Presbyterian.
And while the Presbyterian church is often seen as Scottish – as evidenced today by the presence of tartan and bagpipes and haggis – the Presbyterian expression of the Christian faith has roots in many other parts of the world – Ireland, the United States, the Caribbean, Canada and places in Africa as well as Europe and Asia. And while we may all identify as Presbyterian, there is a diversity in our worship as we seek to reflect not only the heart of the gospel message but also express our faith through images drawn from the world around us.
Traditionally Scottish Presbyterians are noted for being serious worshippers. I remember entering one of my ancestral churches in Scotland. We arrived after the service started. The old doors creaked as we entered but not one person turned to look. A visit to another Presbyterian church in central Scotland – we were on time for that one – was a different experience. The people were warm and engaging and even offered us a Scotch mint for the time of the sermon with this word of wisdom: If your mint is still undissolved before the sermon is done, that is a great day; if it is gone as he finishes, that is also a good day; if he is still speaking when it is gone, our apologies. I must admit, though, that my highland heritage must be ingrained in me for I know that I can be very shy with strangers. That often comes across as being aloof or snooty, but I believe that they are a shy lot in the highlands until they get to know you.
Every Presbyterian congregation has its personality, its strengths and its weaknesses because each is composed of people who are seeking to live their lives according to the commandments of God but also who are struggling to get it right. More and more we realize that our responsibility to one another is not to judge each other for our faults and weaknesses but rather to seek to be the strength that each other needs knowing full well that each of us has things that we will be dealing with and will appreciate the gracious offer of forgiveness and true caring in our lives.
Having said this, there are some unique things about Presbyterians that make us who we are. John Calvin saw a need for the community of believers to be able to be the people of God and take on for themselves the responsibility to live their lives as God’s people. Authority in the church would not rest with individuals but with a body of people elected by the people and set apart to provide leadership and guidance. These would be known as elders and they would have the responsibility to nurture the community and encourage the community members as together they discerned the will of God. They would be assisted in this task by teaching elders who would be called out from the community of believers for the specific tasks of preaching the word of God and teaching people the ways of God. And that is why in the Presbyterian church, clergy play a vital role in the community, but they do not make decisions regarding the life of the community. Those decisions rest with the ruling elders – lay people who have been recognized by the community as having skills for leadership. The ideal that John Calvin envisaged was a community of believers guided by members of the community and assisted by a trained teacher. And as trained leaders we are to advise but listen to and accept the decisions of those called by the congregation to serve as elders. The relationship is to be one of mutual respect and support.
Something that is often forgotten in the church today is that any one who ever trains for pastoral ministry within the Presbyterian Church in Canada begins as a member of a congregation. That person must first be interviewed by the Session of the congregation who then discern whether the person has gifts and a call to ministry. The person then must be interviewed by the Presbytery and the same process of discernment is gone through. At that point, the person is then given permission to be registered with one of our theological colleges to pursue studies leading to ordination. The process of discernment continues throughout their studies and even up to the point of ordination. Personally, I have never stopped seeking to discern whether I am still called to pastoral ministry in general and specifically in any one of the pastoral charges that I have served. The laying on of hands at an ordination is an outward symbol, confirming the inward call to ministry but it does not confirm a life time in ministry. That confirmation can come only from the person’s own faith, commitment and firm belief that God is continuing to call them to serve the church in that capacity. My collar is a sign of my calling, but it does not make me a minister of word and sacrament. The call on my life is a call from God confirmed by those who watched me grow in my faith and who continue to affirm me through their care and encouragement.
What I am trying to impress upon you is that I am no greater than anyone else in this community. Your elders are no greater than any one of you. Each of us has responsibilities within this community but no one of us is above another. We are all part of one covenant community. We all stand equally before God. No one of us can say that we are more loved by God, more cared for by God or more forgiven by God. Our willingness to embrace all within the community and to welcome all to be part of this community is the real strength of the community. Our willingness to welcome the contributions of all and to allow for a diversity of thought and talent and support is what will truly reveal to whom we ultimately owe our lives and our hearts.
We have pledged ourselves to be a community of God’s people gathered to worship, gathered to pass on the faith to upcoming generations, gathered to share our faith with one another and gathered to be ever conscious of our need to care for one another in body, mind and spirit. Our covenant with God is both individual and collective. Each of us has made our own confession of faith but that confession binds us to one another in a common confession of faith that tells one another and the world that we are the people of God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of an ancient people, the God of a new people released from the burden of our sins and freed to live by the Spirit of the living God revealed in the flesh in the one we know as Jesus.
As the ceiling and roof cover this place, so God spreads a blanket over us uniting us together as one body in this place. We are a covenant people!